In 1993, Alabamian and NBA great Charles Barkley appeared in a Nike commercial and proclaimed he wasn’t a “role model.”
His point was that just because he could “dunk a basketball,” it didn’t mean that he should be playing the role parents should be in their children’s lives. At the time, it was a controversial take on the obligations of superstar athletes. The argument was that since Barkley and his ilk were making millions of dollars off the public, they should be obligated to give back in some way — even if that meant filling the void for children where their parents were lacking.
Twenty-two years later that notion still prevails when it comes to sports figures and their responsibilities to society. However, it has taken a curious turn to not just include things upon which most people can agree, like don’t drink and drive, don’t do drugs, stay in school, etc. Today, the concept has morphed into something where athletes have a duty to not only speak out, but speak out on hot-button controversial issues and take the politically correct side.
It should never have gotten to this point.
If we’re looking to sports figures to cure society’s ills, we have bigger problems. In other words, if you need Eli Manning to tell you that it is not OK to hit your wife during halftime in a Bengals-Steelers game, you have failed. Society has failed.
Last month, Kevin Scarbinsky, a sports opinion writer for the Alabama Media Group, argued Alabama head football coach Nick Saban had a similar obligation after Alabama defensive back Geno Smith was arrested for his second DUI arrest in two years and now-former Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor was arrested for domestic violence for a second time.
“No one, including the governor, commands more attention or respect, including the power brokers Saban likes to joke are above his pay grade,” Scarbinsky wrote. “No one has more people hanging on his every word every time he stands at a podium, no matter the time, place or subject.”
This is Exhibit A as to why sportswriters need to follow Saban’s lead and stay within their pay grade. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to get out of that SEC college athletics bubble occasionally. To suggest a football coach, albeit a very good one at the University of Alabama, has a more elevated role than your state’s top elected official suggests you really ought to reevaluate how your perceive the world.
For starters, at least in Taylor’s case, these matters often involve pending legal action and not always the most sterling of accusers — for example, in that incident involving the Tuscaloosa authorities, Taylor’s accuser recanted and is now facing false accusation charges. It’s absurd to have the expectation a coach should wade into the situation, even if it’s with the best intentions.
This is just one example of a situation fraught with pitfalls when it comes to suggesting a sports figure should have been more vocal about something not directly related their sport.
Last week, Duke head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski took on similar criticism. In a press conference before he took his team to play in the NCAA Division Men’s Final Four in Indianapolis, Krzyzewski said he would not be speaking out about Indiana’s so-called “religious freedom” law and asked reporters to stick to basketball-related questions.
It didn’t take long for the outrage machine to fire up and demand Krzyzewski take a position. In the lead-up to the Final Four, some of the more vocal actors in the sports world, including the aforementioned Charles Barkley, called on the NCAA to move their signature sporting event away from Indianapolis over the law they believed allowed for discrimination against homosexuals.
Proponents of the law in Indiana argued it was mischaracterized. Despite the ambiguities, for whatever reason Krzyzewski and the other coaches participating in the Final Four were expected by some to have a clear enough understand of Indiana’s law to take a stand against sexual discrimination.
Let’s say for the sake of argument Krzyzewski and Saban kowtowed to their critics in the media, but take it a step further and add to the equation they had losing seasons next year. Would all be forgiven because Saban was a vocal opponent of domestic violence and drunk driving? Similarly with Krzyzewski, would all be forgiven because he is a champion of same-sex marriage?
No one is going to say, “Well, coach has been an exemplary example of where society needs to be on issue x, y and z. So even though he went 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the conference, let’s give him a four-year extension.”
No one is saying coaches and players shouldn’t weigh in on these matters, if that’s their desire. We shouldn’t, however, expect them to just because of their elevated stature. Being in the public eye is not a qualification to pontificate on societal woes.
In the future, allow our sports heroes to stick to excelling at sports. If you’re looking for social commentary, maybe you should broaden your news diet beyond The Birmingham News sports page or ESPN.
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